Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Playing In The Band"
By David Dodd
Here’s the plan—each week, I will blog about a different song, focusing, usually, on the lyrics, but also on some other aspects of the song, including its overall impact—a truly subjective thing. Therefore, the best part, I would hope, would not be anything in particular that I might have to say, but rather, the conversation that may happen via the comments over the course of time—and since all the posts will stay up, you can feel free to weigh in any time on any of the songs! With Grateful Dead lyrics, there’s always a new and different take on what they bring up for each listener, it seems.(I’ll consider requests for particular songs—just private message me!)
“I don’t trust to nothin’, but I know it come out right.”
Like “The Music Never Stopped,” “Playing” is a song that could be taken as an autobiographical song (others would include “The Other One,” “Truckin’,” “Golden Road....”). I remember this hitting home for me at the Closing of Winterland concert, as we repeatedly saw the phrase “breakfast served at dawn” on t-shirts and posters all night long. Daybreak would truly come as they were playing. By then, we would have been dancing for the entire night: through the New Riders, the Blues Brothers, and then the Dead coming on at midnight to start their three-set show.
Robert Hunter wrote the lyrics, and the music is co-credited to Bob Weir and Mickey Hart.
Furthur is currently, perhaps as you are reading this, playing at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York, and that is where “Playing in the Band” first appeared, on February 18, 1971, along with the debut of “Bertha,” “Greatest Story Ever Told,” “Loser,” and “Wharf Rat.” It was Hart’s last show until his return to the band in October 1974. They played six nights in that run, and “Playin” was played every one of those nights. The band recorded those shows for potential use on the Skull and Roses live album, but apparently none of it was used, according to DeadBase X. Nevertheless, “Playing in the Band” was first released on an album as a live track, on Skull and Roses, in September 1971. According to The Grateful Dead Family Discography, the particular performance captured for Skull and Roses is uncertain--something for someone to correct or fill in the blank.
It’s a little difficult to figure out the recording history of this song—but I suspect it was first recorded for Hart’s solo album, Rolling Thunder (September 1972), as “The Main Ten” (its time signature is 10/4). That album was a year and a half in the making. But even the release of Weir’s own first solo album, Ace (May 1972), predated the release of Hart’s album, and by then the song was fully formed, complete with a beautiful, elegantly captured studio jam, and was ensconced in the band’s live repertoire and released on the live album. So I would speculate (and I’m sure someone out there will either verify this or correct me) that “Playing in the Band” was co-written with Mickey during the sessions for Rolling Thunder (where is was played by an all-star cast of musicians including John Cipollina, Stephen Stills, and the Tower of Power Horn Section), then introduced to the Dead and taken out on tour, and then recorded for Ace, ostensibly a Weir solo album, but, in his own words, “a Grateful Dead record, as far as I’m concerned.”
OK, so that is complicated, and I surely welcome any further elucidation on any score regarding the chain of events as it actually transpired. Perhaps it’s not very important, but it is kinda fun.
Over the course of the band’s live performances, “Playin” appeared 581 times.
Its performance history could doubtless be mined for all kinds of interesting factoids. A cursory scan shows that it mutated from a first-set tune to being firmly ensconced deep in the second set. From 1977 onwards, it was often paired with “Terrapin.” Pairings with “Uncle John’s Band” were not unusual from the early 70’s onward. Occasionally, “Playin” would appear between the two. It’s final performance by the Dead was on July 6, 1995 at Riverport Amphitheater in Maryland Heights, Missouri.
The lyrics morphed a bit over the course of the early years. “Some folks up in treetops, just look to see the sights” changed to “just lookin’ for their kites.” (A nod to Charlie Brown?)
The song contains a plethora of biblical or seemingly biblical references (“let him cast a stone...” “standing on a tower, world at my command,” “others trust to might,” etc.). But my favorite is a somewhat buried Hunter-style aphorism: “I can tell your future, just look what’s in your hand.” At first, I took that to be a reference to palm reading, but a correspondent writing to me as I was putting together the Annotated GD Lyrics site pointed out that you can tell a lot about peoples’ future from what they have in their hands: is it a gun? a drink? a cigarette? a pen? a guitar?
So, while it’s tempting to say that this song has a simply message: leave me alone so I can play music, and don’t give me a hard time about it..., it also hits at a variety of levels. Our lives are what we make of them. We can choose what influences us, and where we will place out trust. When all else fails, music will rescue us.
And then, there is the jam.
To me, the unpredictability of a “Playin” jam was always a highlight of a show. It could get incredibly far out there—completely away from anything—and then, just like that, snap back in, quietly and cautiously or slam-bang, or later, after they’d played most of another song, or a whole set, into the “Playin Reprise.” Sometimes the reprise would never occur.
The version on the So Many Roads boxed set, from July 29, 1988 at Laguna Seca in Monterey, contains a particularly adventurous and mind-blowing jam. I remember an interview with Weir in which he was asked if he remembered that particular “Playing in the Band,” and he said, “I remember being scared.” Blair Jackson’s track notes characterize the performance as “spellbinding, volcanic.”
I loved (and still love) seeing Bobby signal the song onstage by holding all ten fingers in the air. I love dancing to this song. It has brought me a lot of joy and adventure over the years, and I love drifting around in its main theme on the piano.
As always, it’s time for you to chime in. Like a wave upon the sand.
I was at the Cal Expo 05/26/93 show, and that version was frightening.. I literally saw fire and brimstone from Bobs amp, and a green light coming out of Jerry's..it was and will go down as one of the greatest jams of the modern era, no doubt. And I loved the little Crazy Fingers lilt at the end that led into it..Bob or Vince had this trippy "Indian from Venus" futuristic sound, totally cool! I have seen Ratdog play smoking versions as well, but nothing like that. And folks, how many bands can make you dance in 10/4 time??? Thats awesome!!!!
Both styles of "Playing in the Band", the 1971 truncated versions and the 1972 and beyond extended jam versions reflected an ever evolving masterpiece. The bare-bones 1971 version had the sound of the original five band members, spare but full. With Keith joining the mix in October 71 the piano lent itself to the jazz form of extended jam and improvisation. I thought "The Main Ten" on Rolling Thunder was surreal but kicked ass. By the way I think Mickey's Rolling Thunder to be the best solo effort ever put out by any band member of the Dead. "Ace' and 'Garcia' being close. (All three from 1972). I was in the fourth row on 2/18/71 ,so it was good to see Mickey participate in the original version. My first time seeing the band play the extended jam version was at the Academy of Music in March 1972. (front row center). It must have been the flu I had, but it had a scarey edge to it. It was at Veneta 8/27/72 that I was centered enough to "get it". At that time it seemed to reflect the time and era in history. By the way the scene from the movie "Sunshine Daydream" shown during reprise was not shot during Playing in the Band but later that day as indicated by the sun angle and shadows. I see myself in that scene in the movie standing next to cameraman John Norris. And strange coincidence I'm in "The Grateful Dead Movie" during reprise. The words of the song are powerful and in no way trite. The jam reflects grace, beauty, and positive power. The music also gives rise to kaleidoscopic images of travel, be it on land or through space. In later years the band would play "playin" one day and "reprise" another day that was electrifying AKA the "oroboros" or the image of the snake eating it's tail. Full circle loop. And last, it's February 1991 and I'm on the beach with my friends Nkechi and Zecca somewhere between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. They see me writing a message in the sand at the waters edge. As they walk over and read it I finish the words "Like a wave upon the sand" and a wave washes the sand clean.
I dont know how anyone could think of this song as a throwaway. A throwaway doesnt get played 500 times, and probably every time it was, except the first, everyone was singing along. Maybe not Hunters best lyrics but the experiences and joy those lyrics bring could never be thrownaway. John Lennon used to refer to some of his songs as throwaways, but i just dont get it because they ended up on the album. songs like and your bird can sing and i feel fine. Great songs that certianly mean a lot to me.
And also loved the fact that much of the time it's paired with one of the other "meta" songs, UJB and Terrapin. It belongs there.
You guys are fantastic--I will have to go track down all the particular performances mentioned.
I've been thinking about handjive's comments. Very interesting take--I guess I always sort of paired the statements about what it means to be playing in the band with the line from Scarlet Begonias--in which everybody is playing in the band. So, kind of the opposite of rock-star gloating, and much more inclusive--we all have our parts to play in this band, and we're in it together. But I have always been kind of pollyanna-ish about these things.
This jam first appeared in the late 60s. Check out 11/8/69 (DP 16) with Pigpen scat singing the theme. Embryonic stuff!
Check this one out... an inverted Playin on the night before April Fools...
3.31.85 Portland ME
The Wheel>Playin reprise>Playin> Day Tripper
For the Grateful Dead. They could play it with a gigantic jam or slither it in and out up to three times in a set and then begin the encore with it. Loved it unconditionally and can't recall a bad one from 78-93.
I've often felt the lyrics in PITB were no more than filler used to cue up the amazing playing that typically followed during the extended jam. There's plenty of songs that could be described that way, but IMO PITB is the poster child. The lyrics include no nuance, no tasty bits, basically no nothin' but some weak imagery that seems to be gloating over the experience of being a rock star. If they say anything to me, it is something like, "the playing is what really matters here, not these dopey couplets". And that's totally fine with me, because the lyric section is mercifully short and the playin' is incredibly generous!
...because the original is in D.